I had only been back to Vierumäki a couple of times in the last few decades, mostly just for an interview or two, and never for more than a couple of hours, but that didn’t stop me from acting as if I knew my way around the place as I showed the family how to get from the hotel to the rink and the track.
As usual, things had changed in my absence, and as usual, I told Wife all about it. I told her that the hotel must have been brand new, and how where the new rink was now, there used to be an outdoor rink. Then I also pointed out all the things that seemed to be exactly the way I remembered them from my camp.
Thirty years ago, I was an aspiring hockey player. I took it pretty seriously, but in a way an enthusiastic kid takes things seriously. In 1982, though, it was time to get a little more seriously, as it was the year of my first prospect camp. Every year, the different hockey districts in Finland sent their select teams to Vierumäki, Finland, to practice and play against each other in a tournament.
The camp was probably held during the Helsinki schools’ winter break but for us living a little farther north, it meant getting leave from school, because are break was a week later.
My mother, who was always the one to deal with authorities, because she had the way with the words, wrote a note to my principal. She could make things sound official and important.
She wrote: “We kindly request you to grant Risto Pakarinen leave from school between February 15 and February 19 so he can represent his district at a prospect camp from which the first national team will be selected.”
I was granted the permission.
Vierumäki, the sports institute, had always had a special aura in our family because my father had graduated from their hockey program a few years earlier, with excellent grades, something he was – and still is – very proud of, as his formal education had been cut short way before university. That was his university.
And now it was my turn to get to go there, and maybe I, too, would come home feeling like a winner. I had made the district team, which had been a goal of mine, especially after the move from Helsinki to Joensuu. I expected to make the team, especially since I had switched from the toughest district to one that, well, wasn’t as tough.
Almost half the team were my regular teammates, the other half came from other clubs in the district.
We lived in a dorm, and we had practices, and games of course, and being at a camp was mostly exciting, and fun even though I knew that there were people following us. After all, it was “a prospect camp from which the first national team will be selected.”
On the last day of the camp, all the players were summoned to a gymnasium to listen to the final speeches and awards, and finally, the names of the 40 players who’d made the first national team camp. I sat on the floor of the dimly-lit room, pretty far back, listening to the names called out.
Now, we had lost all our games so that wasn’t a good sign but I still thought, or hoped, or wished, that my name might get called.
It was the opposite of the feeling of getting outed as a fraud. You know the feeling when you look around you and wonder when your boss is going to find out you don’t really know what you’re doing. (You know your colleagues already know). At the camp, I knew I hadn’t done all too well, and with thirty years’ perspective I’d have to say that I knew even then that I hadn’t even been the best player on my team, and possibly not even close to my potential.
Anyway, I figured that maybe there was an off chance that the experts had seen something special in me. Surely the greatest hockey minds of Finland could see potential – there it is again – and surely they could evaluate talent despite our team’s lack of success. After all, that’s what had happened to me ten months earlier, at a pre-camp camp of the Helsinki district when, for some, to me unknown, reason, the district head coach showed my skating test video to the other players as an example of a good posture.
I hadn’t had any idea that I was that good. I had just skated.
Maybe I was better than I thought?
I recognized some of the names called out, mostly the players from the Helsinki district, but also some others that I had heard during the camp week. I hadn’t been counting the names, but I knew there couldn’t have been many left. Each new name caused a small celebration and patting on the backs of somebody somewhere in the crowd. Each new name also killed by hopes a little bit.
I never heard the name I knew best, my own, so I walked out of the gymnasium, disappointed, only with memories of great buddies and great food to comfort me.
Those and a new, blue jacket which I wore every day for the rest of the winter, as a badge of honor. And no wonder. There were only seven of those in the entire city. The jacket had the camp logo on the chest. It was special.
Wife and Son and Daughter flew home the next day, but I spent the week at Vierumäki covering a girls’ hockey camp.
I lived in a small apartment, not in a dorm like thirty years ago, but I spent hours upon hours in the same rink as then and every day, as I walked back to the same main building for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – the food was just as good as I remembered – I also walked past the gymnasium.
This time, there were no sad faces, none. Instead, every time I walked past it, I was greeted by the sound of laughter and cheers on the other side of a closed door. I was told that the gymnasium was the home of a cheerleading camp.
That made me smile, which was good, because this time there was no new jacket waiting for me. So, the next time we’ll go there, I can point to the gym and tell Wife that the last time I was there, they held a cheerleading camp there.
“And they were pretty good, too, I saw them build a human pyramid on the grass outside the building,” I’ll say. “But let’s go eat, the food here is really good.”